Informal and Formal Participation in Advocacy: Cape’s Workshop on Civil Societies and the UN

From an outsider’s point of view, the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) might appear to be yet another inter-governmental process to keep the government accountable for its human rights violations. While this is not untrue, what might often go less discussed is that the UPR is also heavily reliant on civil societies to not only keep tabs on domestic human rights issues, but also push for progress. This involves both informal collaboration and the formal submission of reports to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights).

On 19 November 2021, about 25 participants joined us for a workshop on civil societies and the UPR. It comprised both presentations by Braema Mathi from Maruah and Deryne Sim from Pink Dot SG, and a dialogue session with the participants. While Braema delved into the process of the UPR itself and her experiences in the third cycle of the universal periodic review, Deryne shared with us more about the approach taken, especially in the report-writing process, the government’s response as well as her experiences collaborating with other NGOs that were exploring similar issues.

Braema Mathi from Maruah shared what her civil society did for the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review and the issues that they engaged with. Braema shared that it is better to work through collaboration and in solidarity with other civil society groups to create a combined report. By doing so, Maruah raised a wide range of issues regarding political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights. The report was evidence-based and gave recommendations to the government on how to improve and ensure the rights of its citizens.

To begin, Braema explained Singapore’s general issue concerning human rights–namely a lack of ratification of international human rights conventions. She understands this to result in Singapore’s stagnation in its efforts to safeguard important practices and institutions–such as freedom of expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; fair elections; a complete justice system; and an undiscriminating society.

Following which, Braema briefly elucidated the human rights recommendations that her civil society presented to the government. Most recommendations were about repealing or enacting specific laws, which are specific and feasible. For example, after explaining the issue of discrimination and lack of legal protection for the LGBTQ community, Maruah suggested repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code and enacting other laws to protect the rights of LGBTQ Singaporeans.

Braema then elaborated on the need for continuous advocacy and solidarity in Singapore’s approach towards human rights issues. She notes that, presently, many different NGOs are passionate about writing reports, and hence, there is an opportunity for them to work together. She suggests that NGOs can collaborate by distributing the workload amongst themselves and build a wider support base for their respective causes. It was here that Braema concluded her session and apologised to leave for another appointment.

Picking up from where Braema left and building on her point, Deryne Sim from Pink Dot SG shared with us more on how NGOs can collaborate. She brought up the example of how different NGOs advocating for LGBTQ+ rights took turns to attend various meetings during the discussions with various UN Member States. She then explained that different topics can be distributed amongst NGOs based on their areas of specialisation.

Deryne also touched on the need for strategic advocacy. Firstly, there is a need to understand the issues important to other member states involved in the process and to appeal to these areas of interest. For example, when meeting with delegates from the Philippines, they may be more interested in issues surrounding the rights of migrant workers, given that Philippines sends foreign domestic workers to Singapore. NGOs from Singapore submitting stakeholder reports may find it useful to work together with the Philippines on these particular issues. Secondly, stakeholder reports should also recognise the efforts the government has made in relation to improving human rights issues before delving into its shortcomings. This might help to reduce any mutual hostility and encourage fruitful discussions.

After both the presentations, our moderators facilitated a dialogue session with Deryne through a Q&A interaction. Participants were invited to ask any questions they had about the UPR process in Singapore.

The issues of discussion revolved primarily around the legitimacy of the UPR process in Singapore, how the UPR collaboration process works and whether the UPR process has effected change in Singapore. Participants also enquired about how citizens could contribute to policy-making on personal and national levels.

As a general response, Deryne explained that the UPR process is most effective when there is a collaborative effort between several NGOs working on similar issues. The leaders of these NGOs should convene whenever the UPR submission report is approaching to discuss which issues are pertinent to mention in that year’s report. These issues are weighed specifically based on what is most consequential and relevant to Singapore society in that year, and the NGOs delegate the issues among themselves to research and make a report on.

In response to questions on the significance of the UPR, Deryne finds the UPR process legitimate and effective as a proper avenue and opportunity to lobby the government for social reforms relevant to Singaporean society.

Meanwhile, regarding personal contribution, Deryne shared that, as Singaporeans, we can continue following current affairs, and advocating and speaking up for causes that are important to us. In addition, we may approach other NGOs and ask if we may participate in their respective report submission should we have a cause of particular interest.

In summary, the discussion taught us much about the UPR process itself and signalled that Singapore should continue to strive to take advantage of the UPR process to initiate social reforms that can help move society forward.

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